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Oakland Raiders middle linebacker Rolando McClain might be able to alter critical views of the "defensive quarterback" role. (Dean Coppola/Staff)

There is no inside linebacker I would rather have in the NFL than the 49ers' Patrick Willis.

There is no other player I would have drafted eighth overall for the Raiders last month than inside linebacker Rolando McClain.

But I don't know how important that inside linebacker position is in today's pass-happy NFL.

It doesn't even rank in my top five or six critical positions, those being: quarterback, pass-rushing end, left tackle, cornerback and either defensive tackle or marquee receiver, whether that is a tight end or wideout.

Willis might have the capacity to reclassify inside linebacker in the NFL world order, hence his five-year, $50 million contract extension Tuesday. Hopefully, at least for the Raiders' sake, McClain also can alter critical views of that "defensive quarterback" role.

But please tell me the key inside linebackers from the past five Super Bowl-winning franchises. OK, I'll tell you: Jonathan Vilma (New Orleans Saints), James Farrior (Pittsburgh Steelers), Antonio Pierce (New York Giants), Gary Brackett (Indianapolis Colts) and Tedy Bruschi (New England Patriots).

Meanwhile, quarterbacks Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are the ones hailed as Super Bowl heroes in this pass-oriented era, along with their receivers.

It's been 10 years since linebacker extraordinaire Ray Lewis keyed the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl run. After that, Bruschi handled Bill Belichick's wily schemes with aplomb en route to three Super Bowl titles, but Brady's passing stole the show.


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Neither the 49ers nor the Raiders has a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback on their roster, however. That puts the onus on their defenses, and it is wise to field strong, physical leaders in the middle, regardless of narrowing perceptions about interior linebackers.

Willis didn't receive any votes for last season's Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year. Instead, cornerback Charles Woodson (Green Bay Packers) was the easy winner ahead of cornerback Darrelle Revis (New York Jets), pass rusher Elvis Dumervil (Denver Broncos), safety Darren Sharper (Saints) and defensive end Jared Allen (Minnesota Vikings).

Niners coach Mike Singletary is a Pro Football Hall of Fame middle linebacker who won a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears 25 years ago. He said Willis is "unique" and will "do things that no other inside linebacker has ever done."

Bring it on.

"A lot of times they think a middle linebacker is only big and only stops the run and whatnot," Willis said. "I didn't want to be that type of guy. I wanted to be an all-around athlete, so if I was asked to cover, I would cover. If I was asked to blitz, I could blitz. If I was asked to stop the run, I could stop the run. I just wanted to be a complete guy."

Sounds too good to be true. But he is living up to that all-around package. Is it enough to make a difference in this day and age?

Keena Turner, who won four Super Bowls with the 49ers as primarily a weakside linebacker, is admittedly biased when defending linebackers' worth. But he also made a lot of sense.

"The middle linebacker controls the (defensive) front seven. Without that control, you have utter chaos," Turner said. "They're throwing the ball more, but you still have 11 guys on defense, you still have the same size field, there is still no place to hide.

"At the end of the day, the linebacker still has to find you."

The middle linebacker also has to line up his defense appropriately, including those higher regarded pass rushers. Not only do great middle linebackers have the passion to make every play (Singletary's words), they also need to diagnose plays in a split second for a run or pass.

"(Willis) is really good at knowing where everybody else is going to be, because that really helps determine for him where he has to be in order to make a play and be at just the right angle," Singletary said. "The middle linebacker or linebacker is a cerebral guy, but at the same time, there is a rage that is there that allows him to get where he needs to be."

McClain isn't wasting time molding that cerebral aspect. He phoned for the Raiders' defensive playbook and videos the day after he got drafted. Good, because the Raiders can't afford any more chaos in the middle of their defense.

McClain and Willis obviously take their jobs seriously, as they should. Football is a team sport, every position is vital, but inside linebackers will continue having a tough time garnering true glamour thanks to the NFL's passing-game emphasis.

Contact Cam Inman at cinman@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/Cam Inman.